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(photo credit: AP [file])
Ehud Olmert's aides on Wednesday said that the prime minister stood by his claim that his intervention made the US abstain from last Thursday's UN Security Council resolution vote on a Gaza cease-fire.
The aides said the prime minister told the story exactly as it happened. Olmert had claimed that US President George W. Bush broke off a speech he was giving in Philadelphia to take his call, and that the abstention embarrassed Rice.
The aides spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the matter.
Israel and the US engaged in a rare and uncharacteristic public spat Tuesday over events leading up to the UN vote.
Both the State Department and White House spokesmen said that Olmert's claim that he had essentially gotten Bush to twist Rice's arm and abstain on the measure was simply untrue.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Olmert's story of what happened in his conversation with Bush was "just 100 percent, totally, completely not true," while White House deputy press secretary Tony Fratto said "there are inaccuracies."
During a speech to local authority heads in Ashkelon on Monday, Olmert had said that Rice had been embarrassed when she was ordered to back down from supporting the resolution she had prepared, after Olmert intervened with Bush.
Olmert said he had called Bush and interrupted his Philadelphia lecture to ensure that the US did not vote for the resolution.
"I said: 'Get me President Bush on the phone,'" Olmert said. "They said he was in the middle of giving a speech in Philadelphia. I said I didn't care: 'I need to talk to him now.' He got off the podium and spoke to me."
According to Olmert, he told Bush that the US should not vote for the resolution, and Bush then directed Rice to abstain.
"She was left pretty embarrassed," Olmert said.
McCormack said that Rice had decided as early as Wednesday that she would not veto a resolution, after Arab ministers rejected an initial effort by the US to push for a weaker presidential statement from the Security Council. That left her with the option of either voting for the final text or abstaining.
"So you have two possibilities left: voting for it, or abstaining, and she decided, given where the state of the negotiations were in terms of the Mubarak initiative, that abstaining would give the best possibility for those negotiations to move forward and actually resolve the situation on the ground," McCormack said.
He said Rice had spoken with Bush both before and after his conversation with Olmert, but insisted "with 100% assurance that her intention, again, going into the conversation with the president was that she was going to abstain."
Like Olmert's aides, an official in the Prime Minister's Office said "the Prime Minister's comments on Monday were a correct account of what took place."
The official downplayed the incident, saying it was "over" and would have no lasting impact.
The official said he was not aware of any conversation Olmert had had with Rice on Tuesday to clarify the matter, or that any messages had been relayed from Jerusalem to Washington.
Washington's account of the events, however, seemed to have been indirectly confirmed by Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, who was quoted as saying earlier in the week that she had held seven "difficult" phone conversations with Rice on the day of the vote, and Rice had told her that while the US would not veto the resolution, it would abstain.
Rice spent three days in New York shuttling between conference rooms at United Nations headquarters, meeting with Arab ministers and her British and French counterparts. She said after Thursday's vote that she had abstained because she felt a resolution "might have been a little premature."
Israeli officials said it was unlikely that the spat would have any lasting impact, primarily because Rice would be leaving office in less than a week.
Olmert's comment, said in an off-the-cuff manner and not read from a text, is widely believed to reflect the degree of Israeli disappointment at Rice's handling of the Security Council resolution.
Middle East expert Steven Spiegel described the episode as "the worst faux pas by an Israeli prime minister in history."
"You really do wonder what the prime minister was thinking - if it's true, you'd really want to keep it as quiet as possible, and if it's not true, why would you want to make up a story that would embarrass both the Bush administration and the Israeli government and draw criticism from those who are antagonistic to Israel?" asked Spiegel, director of the Center for Middle East Development at UCLA.
"No matter how you play it, exaggeration, falsehood, whole truth, the whole thing makes them all look bad," Spiegel told The Jerusalem Post.